One can be forgiven for thinking that all the women in the Suffragette movement were white British. Any mentions of women of colour are few and far between, with the most well-known activists being Emiline Pankhurst and Emily Davidson. Whilst their contribution to the movement cannot be over-stated, Asian women also played a key role, with little being told about their involvement.
According to Shahida Rahman, many Indian women were brought over to Britain as nannies, and after their contract ended, were left to fend for themselves and find passage back to India. Many British people looked upon these women as helpless and oppressed, however as more and more Asian women became outspoken about various political campaigns they were soon regarded with respect.
One of the most prominent women in the whole Suffragette campaign was Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian Princess and daughter of a wealthy man; Maharaja Duleep Singh. In March 1909 Sophia join the Women’s Social and Political Union, and pledged a considerably large amount of money to the cause. However, from this time onwards, it was not just her money which Sophia donated as she became a devoted and well-known member of the movement. She also joined the Women’s Tax Resistance League, who withheld their taxes in protest at their lack of political representation. When brought to court over her refusal to pay tax, Sophia made a rousing speech declaring that:
“I am unable conscientiously to pay money to the state, as I am not allowed to exercise any control over its expenditure; neither am I allowed any voice in the choosing of Members of Parliament, whose salaries I have to help to pay. This is very unjust. When the women of England are enfranchised and the state acknowledges me as a citizen I shall, of course, pay my share willingly towards its upkeep. If I am not a fit person for the purpose of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?”
So well-known was Sophia, that a letter was written to Lord Crewe in April 1913, asking if “anything could be done to stop her”, and contemplating her eviction from her lodgings in Hampton Court.
Sophia Duleep Singh was by no means the only Asian woman who played her part in the campaign to gain women the vote, with links being established between the women’s movement in India and at home. The delegation of Indian women in the Suffragette procession in June 1911, although small, made such an impression on a Governor on an Indian province that he considered it to be the ‘most significant feature’ of the whole procession, as it highlighted the fact that the “Woman’s Question” was without “race, creed, or boundary”.
For today’s society the participation of Indian women in the Suffragette movement is highly significant. With the abundance of anti-immigrant rhetoric being bound across the media, it is important to highlight the vital role that immigrants have played in the shaping of this country for the better.
Links and further reading
Shahida Rahman, “Asian Suffragettes – Women who made a difference”, Feminist and Women’s Association blog, http://fwsablog.org.uk/2014/01/09/asian-suffragettes-women-who-made-a-difference/
Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 years of history, Pluto Press, 2002
Anita Anand, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015
British Library Learning – Asians in Britain, http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/asians/activismpolitics/activismandpolitics.html